A man sits in a cold cell in Tegel Prison. His body weathered like his clothes. He sits hunched over a desk. Pen in hand. The cold air of winter is the only reminder of the joyous season he is in. He is forced wait, to wonder, to think. He thinks about how every letter will be read twice, maybe three times. Once by the guards, once by the Lieutenant assigned to read them, and once by his loved ones to whom he writes. Three witnesses to each word, three opportunities to share, to pastor from a distance, those who God has given him even in his chains. His words are reflective yet disclose a faith, a real faith, raw yet unflinching, ardent but forloned. Every stroke a testemony, every goodbye could be the last. So from the depths of his cell, and from the depths of His waiting, he writes. These are just some of his reflections from those letters:
The Advent season is a season of waiting, but our whole life is an Advent season, that is, a season of waiting for the last Advent, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth.
We can, and should also, celebrate Christmas despite the ruins around us…I think of you as you now sit together with the children and with all the Advent decorations- as in earlier years you did with us. We must do all this, even more intensively because we do not know how much longer we have.
– Letter to Bonhoeffer’s parents, Nov 29, 1943, from Tegel prison
Waiting is an art that our impatient age has forgotten.. It wants to break open the ripe fruit when it has hardly finished planting the shoot. But all too often the greedy eyes are only deceived; the fruit that seemed so precious is still green on the inside, and disrespectful hands ungratefully toss aside what has so disappointed them. Whoever does not know the austere blessedness of waiting — that is, of hopefully doing without — will never experience the full blessing of fulfillment….
Those who do not know how it feels to struggle anxiously with the deepest question of life, of their life and patiently look forward with anticipation until the truth is revealed, cannot even dream of the spendor of the moment in which clarity is illuminated for them. And for those who do not want to win the friendship and love of another person — who do not expectantly open up their soul to the soul of the other person, until friendship and love come, until they make their entrance — for such people the deepest blessing of the one like of two intertwined souls will remain forever hidden.
For the greatest, most profound, tenderest things in the world, we must wait. It happens not here in a storm, but according to the divine laws of sprouting, growing and becoming.
[In this letter Bonhoeffer goes on to console his fiance Maria, while reflecting on the message of Christmas]
…We shall ponder the imcomprehensibility of our lot and be assailed by the question of why, over and above the darkness already enshrouding humanity, we should be subjected to the bitter anguish of a separation whose purpose we fail to understand…and then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all of our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.
– Letter to Maria von Wedemeyer from prison, Dec 13, 1943
I like to believe when he finished writing. Bonhoeffe smiled, the kind of smile only faith can produce when surrounded by the cold burn of such a hell as Tegel prison. A rich deep smile that starts in the eyes and ends in the heart. A smile sustained by the truth that God was in the manger, and God is on the throne. A smile that does not hide the frustration of longing. A smile that wins friends even enemies. The kind of smile cultivated during advent and enjoyed at Christmas.
J. Dawson Jarrell